Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Disinheritance - John Sibley Williams (Apprentice House Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Disinheritance.  John Sibley Williams.  Apprentice House Press.  Loyola University Maryland.  Baltimore, Maryland.  2016.


Disinheritance by John Sibley Williams is an epic cannonade of grief that echoes with the howls of the bereaved and the callous innocent whispers of the dead.  Williams says it right out loud in his poem ProcessionDisinheritance is Williams coming to terms with "This dazzling confederacy of losses."  

Williams is deep into some desperately sad glamour but the reader connects to this urgent melancholy as though it were our own.  Williams is touching our deepest fear, the loss of one of our beloved.

A Dead Boy Speaks to His Parents

        Hush now:

you don't have to be              anymore.

Whatever script you'd written for the stars to follow, they've missed
their marks,
gone true right               instead of stage right.

Nightly, you whisper:
ever since                      perhaps because              or even before --

but you don't have to thread cause through effect

or rummage through whatever beginnings you've captured on film to
discover a fixed point of departure.

The zeotrope continues to spin                     without image.

           Mom and Dad:

you don't have to be                       contained anymore

between the lines I never had time to write
on the stars                        that don't listen anyway.


Banshee screams reverberate in the quiet sorrow Williams has invested in these poems.  The loss and unimaginable emotional fatigue that underscores the restrained madness of grief is writ large in all these poems yet they never weigh us down completely.  John Sibley Williams has "given sorrow words" to quote Maryse Holder - another writer who knew everything you get to know about loss.

These poems touch our hearts at the same time as they wrench our stomachs and pull at our throats. Ghosts reach out with their ghostly cold hands to offer some solace but the revenant have no skill at holding back grief.

Things Start at Their Names

Ice locks the river in place and my heart
is static for the season and traversable.

Sometimes a boy about the age
my son would be adventures

half way across me before remembering
the duty to destroy the one thing

beneath him. He writes his name
on my rib; it says Curiosity. I reply

with the name I've learned to wear:
Distance. A fluster of bluegill follows his body

downstream to where it meets the Columbia,
in time the ocean, which I cannot make freeze.

Next spring I will snare the things that still in me,
beat them against stone, and eat until empty. I have

his name written all over my body; it say Forever
be Winter. My wife calls him Gabriel; after all these years

she still calls him Gabriel, and sometimes from the shore
she calls to me: Thaw.


To say that this morning's reading was a somber affair would not be going quite far enough.  Tears were shed.  John Sibley Williams seems determined to unleash a quiet emotional fury on the reader and is entirely successful, everyone in the office "liked" the poems, much admiration was expressed, shared glances. muted looks.  Reading Disinheritance will wring your heart right out of your chest.

So how does Today's book of poetry say I like something so sad?  For the same reasons I like sad songs, I am touched.  Williams builds tension like he was stringing a piano, everything is tight.

A Dead Boy Fishes with His Dead

The fish have broken the line again, Grandpa,
and everything we've held runs silver through our hands,
and out. Across the never-ending surface: disruptions and
echoes, waves our crooked fingers cannot flatten.
Our lines travel without us. You and I and the lives we must end.

But not today.
Today we've lost the death that keeps us.

Today we reverse: you are my child and I will love you
for the childish stories I've heard.
About the dead you cannot erase,
muddied uniforms and flags marked by the smallest red suns.
About how Grandma combs the long-dried blood
from your thinning hair, with her thinning hand.
About how each kindness is a reason to remain unpardoned.

How memory writhes below skin and is its own decision:
devour or release.

I will decide to love the empty hook of your body,
like a warning, your hands--
where they've calloused and where they've healed.
Today I will pretend to understand

why you cry like a knife stroke when I throw you back.


Grief can be overwhelming and terrifying and Williams isn't letting anyone out the exits without a heartscorch.  Disinheritance is a pained pleasure, compelling as it is discomforting.  This is wicked good writing.

Image result for john sibley williams photo
John Sibley Williams


John Sibley Williams is the editor of two Northwest poetry anthologies and the author of nine collections. A five-time Pushcart nominee and winner of the Philip Booth Award, American Literary Review Poetry Contest, Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize, and Vallum Award for Poetry, John serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a literary agent. Previous publishing credits include: The Midwest Quarterly, december, Third Coast, Baltimore Review, Nimrod International Journal, Hotel Amerika, Rio Grande Review, Inkwell, Cider Press Review, Bryant Literary Review, RHINO, and various anthologies. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

“In John Sibley Williams’ “amalgam of real /and fabled light” one is able to believe again in the lyric poem as beautiful—if difficult—proof of private space. Disinheritance contends intimately with loss, to be sure – but it also proposes the poem as a way to remember, to persist, to be oneself, to believe. And to persist when belief may not be possible within the bounds of the shores the seas impose upon us.”
     —Joan Naviyuk Kane

“There is eternal longing in these poems of John Sibley Williams. A yearning for what cannot be understood. A song for what simply is. A distance beyond human measurement. A series of profound losses giving birth to words no different from medicine.”
    —Zubair Ahmed

“There is a hunger in these poems, one of an empty handed wise man who wants to sing. And sing he does. Let these poems sing to you too. Let them hold you in that raw place of hope, let them be ships mooring us to the wild / bottomless sea.”
     —Daniela Elza

“In John Sibley Williams’ moving, somber collection, the power of elegy, reverie, and threnody transcends the disinheritance caused by separation. These compellingly atemporal poems form the locus wherein generations of a family can gather. Here, Williams’ lyric proto-language—elemental, archetypal, primordial—subsumes barriers of time and space. His poems create their own inheritance.”
     —Paulann Petersen, Oregon Poet Laureate Emerita
Daniel Klawitter, author of A Poet Playing Doctor and An Epistemology Of Flesh, reads the poem Sanctuary from John Sibley Williams' poetry collection Disinheritance.
Video: John Sibley Williams



Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

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